Interview with Dr. Gerry Callaghan, the Philosophy Department’s Extended Learning Coordinator

Wednesday, June 24, 2020


Gerry CallaghanWe chat with Professor Gerry Callaghan to find out more about his role as the philosophy department’s Extended Learning Coordinator, and how the recent switch to fully remote and online learning at Waterloo has impacted his role.  

1. How do you see online learning as fitting into to the larger scheme of Philosophy education at UW?

The Philosophy Department is now well into its second decade of involvement with online learning. In fact, our investment in “distance education” of one kind or another goes back even further than that. I won’t bog you down with specific dates, but I can tell you that I have a little museum of cassette tapes and CDs in my office, which were the kinds of media we once used to convey course content to students pursuing their studies at distance. The cassette tapes should give you some idea of how far back this all goes.

 A lot has changed since the rise of the Internet and the advent of learning management systems specifically designed to support online courses (systems like our own Waterloo-LEARN). In fact, at UW, we tend not even to speak of “distance education” anymore, preferring the more accurate term “extended learning.” I say “more accurate” because the online option doesn’t just cater to students who live away from campus any more. Increasingly, it also serves on-campus students who are looking for convenient and flexible ways to integrate courses that might have been difficult for them to take otherwise. In this connection, it’s important to recognize that online courses really are a different kind of thing than on-campus courses. They’re not really conceived of as ordinary classrooms that somehow get transposed into cyberspace—though I realize that we’re currently having to experiment with such transpositions due to the lockdown. 

Rather, in a typical online course—that is, in a course that’s designed for online presentation—all of the main teaching content is authored in advance and is available to students throughout the term. This approach gives students some real flexibility and independence in how they pursue their learning, but it also means that the content needs to be crafted very carefully and systematically, and that the finished product has to be presented in a way that will keep students interested despite the lack of a face-to-face classroom. Learn site

To put a point on all of this, my impression is that Philosophy’s online courses have been a real success. The courses provide students in our major and minor programs with some real options in how they pursue their degree requirements. In fact, the Philosophy Department has for a long time designed its online offerings so as to support a three-year general degree in Philosophy that can be taken wholly online. The courses also help to make Philosophy an appealing option for students in other programs—e.g., students who may look to Philosophy as an interesting venue for filling out electives and/or breadth requirements, or who just want to try a Philosophy course or two out of natural curiosity. 

2. Can you tell me a bit about what the job of Extended Learning Coordinator looks like normally?

Maybe the best way to describe what the job ordinarily looks like is in terms of the various people I work with. (I’m a people person!)  One thing I do is work with Philosophy faculty members who take on the task of authoring new online courses. On such projects, I also work with Online Learning Consultants and Developers from the Centre for Extended Learning, who are largely responsible for the online “finished product” that comes out of the not-yet-online “raw content” that course authors provide. To be honest, I’m more of a philosopher than I am a techie, but over the years I’ve developed a pretty clear view of what we want the philosophy courses to look like, on both the philosophy end and the technical end, so I end up being a useful go-between as these projects develop (or so I hope). I’ve also authored three of the Philosophy Department’s online courses myself, so I’ve got some real first-hand perspective on the rigours of these projects, which helps me help the other folks I work with.

I also have a lot of work to do with respect to the Department’s specific offerings in a given term. For starters, I work with CEL Quality Assurance staff on the preparation of upcoming term-versions of the courses, seeing to any necessary updates in the syllabi, course schedules, assigned texts, or whatever else might need some tweaking. After that, I work closely with the instructional personnel the Department assigns to work on the courses once they’re up and running. Since our online instructors are typically TAs from our Ph.D. program, who have limited general teaching experience and (sometimes) little-to-no previous exposure to the specific courses they’re working on, it’s important that I be there to prepare them for the work. For better or worse, I’m the one that’s most familiar with the ins and outs of the online courses, so I’m in a good position to let the TAs know how they need to focus their efforts as things proceed. And, of course, I’m also there to assist with tricky or unfamiliar situations that may arise. I also do a lot of work on designing and updating the assessment cycles. Here again, the fact that I’ve spent so much time with the courses means that I’m the one that’s in the best position to ensure that assignments and exams are properly aligned with the courses’ learning outcomes. 

Finally, there’s the boring stuff I work on with the Philosophy Department brass, things like scheduling the online courses, making decisions about instructional personnel, planning future projects, trouble-shooting, etc.  Actually, none of that stuff is boring at all; it’s just that I don’t know how to write it up so that it sounds as interesting as it actually is.

3. Has the move to online and remote teaching posed any challenges for your role?

learn hompeageYes indeed! That answer may sound surprising given that much of the content for online courses is actually prepared in advance. However, there’s been a pretty furious pace to online coordination since the shutdown began last term. The cancellation of in-person exams at the end of the Winter term was pretty hectic all on its own, since it involved making a lot of decisions and conveying a lot of on-the-fly messaging, to students and instructors alike, about how the end of term was going to be managed. Added to which, I had to devise alternative, take-home final exams for all the online Philosophy courses, since those courses are normally planned to have in-person finals. 

In the run-up to the Spring term, it was important to adjust all of our syllabi so as to accurately reflect the changes imposed by the lockdown. Sounds simple enough, right? Fact is, even making a change as simple as the move to take-home exams involves creating and/or editing several html pages in LEARN, creating new drop-boxes, reweighting assessment schemes, and changing course schedule information, and this all has to be done in every course we offer. And since we’re now covering courses we’d normally be offering on campus with online alternatives, we’re offering more online courses than ever this Spring, with more students in them, and more instructors supervising them. The situation’s been keeping me hopping, to say the least.

4. Has the move to online and remote teaching brought about any positives for your role?

Here’s an uninspiring positive: I think I’ve come to better understand the settings for LEARN Dropboxes.

NApollo lunar moduleow for a more inspiring positive: Even though online courses have always (well, at least for a long time) provided a valuable alternative to physical classrooms as spaces where teaching and learning can take place, there’s a real sense in which online and remote teaching are now keeping the whole ship afloat. Lately, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of an analogy with Apollo 13 (the actual mission, for those of us old enough to remember it, but the movie will do for those of you who missed the real thing). At a certain point in the planned mission to the moon, things go radically wrong with a couple of the air tanks, and the astronauts are at risk of losing power to the ship, even suffocating. But they survive by shutting down power in the main module (the so-called “command-service module” or “CSM”) and taking refuge in the smaller module that was supposed to land on the moon (the so-called “lunar module”), since it was easier to conserve power and oxygen in the smaller environment. Now I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I’m kind of thinking of online education as UW’s version of the lunar module. We’re not saving lives, I know, but we’re providing an environment where the teaching mission of the university can carry on, even as the COVID crisis mandates that we shut down the main campus.

The positive I take from this—amid the many obvious negatives of the shutdown itself—is that I really feel the importance of the role I play in our department, and in the university more broadly. In fact, I’m pretty proud of the job we’re all doing in making online education work, in circumstances where it’s so important that it does work. 

5. What are some ways you have been staying in touch with the department and students (or more generally, family and friends as well!) during the lockdown?

Pretty much everything other than meeting face-to-face. Phone calls, email, MS Teams meetings, WebEx meetings, Zoom meetings (though those are being discouraged now).  Well, almost everything; I haven’t been buying stamps to put on physical letters lately, but maybe I’ll try that if the electronic options start to feel overly tedious. It could be a kind of “steampunk” approach to communication--slow, but not without its charms. :-) 

6. How have you been doing during this lockdown? Tennis match playing on a tv

I’m doing pretty well. I feel lucky to be healthy, to have a healthy family around me, to be able to work, to be able to watch 5, 10, 15 year old baseball games and tennis matches on TV. I miss seeing students and colleagues around the Philosophy Department, and I have to say that working from home has a tendency to blur the otherwise happy distinction between “work time” and “my time”—work-life balance is a bit of a delicate thing for me, it seems—but it’s not a problem I can’t handle. Besides, I’d rather be working from home than living in the Philosophy Department.  :-)

7. Do you think the changes that have been made/put into place during the move to remote teaching will help the department, or the University, in how they facilitate online teaching going forward?

It’s hard to say right now, since we’re still at a relatively early stage of the new normal. From my perspective, we’re running a pretty busy slate of online courses for the Spring term, but since the courses are running in pretty much the same ways they normally do—they’re online courses, after all—we’re not really breaking much new ground. However, the upcoming Fall term suggests some interesting possibilities, since there will be serious numbers of faculty members teaching remotely, many of whom would normally be teaching only on campus. It’ll be interesting to find out what they make of the experience. There may be those who find some value-added in this or that aspect of what they’re doing online, and who seek to incorporate it into their general approach to teaching. Then again, there may be some who never want to teach online again. One way or another, I think we’ll have the opportunity to hear from some people who aren’t usually in a position to weigh-in on what does and doesn’t work online. In a community as rich as ours is in critical thinkers, it would be surprising if we couldn’t learn a new trick or two about online teaching, given that so many people are going to be doing it in one form or another.

8. Anything else you would like to add?

CEL logoA word of thanks to everyone who is working to adapt to the environment of our metaphorical lunar module—staff, students, teachers and administrators. But an especially emphatic thank you to the folks at the Centre for Extended Learning, some of whom have had to put up with my own desperate requests, questions, worries, and general scatter-brainedness. The CEL’s always a busy place, but right now it’s hyper-busy, since a very large part of the improvisational work that the University is doing in the face of the pandemic is falling on the shoulders of its people. What’s the metaphor I want here? Mission Control? Yes, that’ll do.